A Different Path
Six nights a week hundreds of teenagers, who otherwise might be hanging out on the streets of Providence, head to recreation centers across the city for a program called Project Night Vision. This month, Jim Hummel introduces us to the founder and force behind a program that reaches 500 teenagers a week and is shaping lives - all with very limited resources.
Wednesday night just after dark.
And while the Madeline Rogers Rec Center off Chalkstone Avenue looks quiet from the outside.
It is anything but on the inside, as hundreds of teens gather to play pickup basketball....or air hockey....or foosball.... or pool - all part of a program called Project Night Vision, launched several years ago for at-risk teens.
Right in the middle of it all - the program's founder, Kobi Dennis, who volunteers his time six nights a week in three different locations across the city.
Dennis: ``The first thing out of a young person's mouth is: (from these impoverished neighborhoods)` You don't know what I go through. You don't know what it's like.' Time and time again I tell them, `But I do.'
That's because Dennis, now married and a father of three, grew up in South Providence in a single-parent household. The program's name was inspired by a stint Dennis did in the United States Navy before coming back to Rhode Island.
Dennis: ``We would look out for mines in the Persian gulf. I would stand out at the tip of the ship with night vision goggles and I would see everything.''
He says steep reductions in state and city funding have left kids ages 12 to 18 without some of the services that used to be available. His goal is to get them off the streets and channel their energy in a positive direction.
Dennis: ``You know, Latchkey key kids just going in the house by themselves at 13, and in our day it probably would have been ok 'cause it's three channels - there's not much to do, you're staring at the fish tank and maybe you go out and throw a ball or something. But now, you have all the tablets, cable television, a 13 years can get into some big trouble.''
Casimiro: ``He's genuine. He's from the community - he's for the community.''
Julie Casimiro works for Children's Friend and Service in Providence - and immediately hit it off with Dennis when they met at an event a couple of years ago. She soon became a close friend - and partner.
Casimiro: ``The community that we both serve in is an incredible violent community.''
Casimiro is amazed at how much Dennis gets done with so little.
Casimiro: ``He does it on a shoestring, there's no funding for this - it's done by donations and the goodness of volunteers. The breadth of the organization, the scope of the organization, it's just mind-boggling that he can serve 1,500 young people with basically no money, funding.''
Bellini: ``He transcends the typical public service jargon-speaking kind of guy out there. He's not telling you what you want to know. He's actually telling you the way it is.And that's refreshing.''
Dante Bellini, another friend who has seen Project Night Vision from the front lines, says Dennis is able to do something few other people can accomplish.
Bellini: ``Many of these kids come from disadvantaged situations and they come from all different perspectives and they have all different cultures and it's a hard thing to wrangle that into something peaceful and good and productive.''
Project Night Visio runs on staggered nights Monday through Saturday at the Rogers Rec Center, the Joslin Center off Manton Avenue and at Sackett Street in South Providence.
Dennis, who works part-time at the Rhode Island Training School and for a social service agency during the day, runs a tight ship here in the evening. Everyone who comes through the door has to register and he has kicked out kids who don't follow the rules - or respect the program.
Dennis: ``I believe these kids are all under my watch. Going back to the military days, never leave your post unmanned and me letting people in here without knowing who they are I believe that's the same. So what I do I check on the status of every person coming through these doors. I want to know who they are and I believe when you meet something, when you look them eye-to-eye, shake their hand and introduce yourself - right there it takes a lot of edge off of who they are or who they may think you are. I still find the time to shake almost everyone's hand. That's one of my goals every night, shaking all hands, looking into everyone's eye: how you doing? how's it going? how was your day? did you go to school? Just those questions I know I used to love when my mom... when I came home from school that a lot of these people don't get.''
He has brought in programs you might not expect for an inner-city crowd; like a yoga class on Tuesdays that has that has attracted some of the teens' parents. Dennis has also recruited a lacrosse player from East Greenwich High to teach kids the fundamentals of a sport that most have only seen on television.
On many nights there are sandwiches and a snack for the kids as they arrive at the front door.
Dennis says he's not sure most of the kids here appreciate what they're getting from the program, but that's okay - they will someday.
Dennis: ``One f the kids just said to me tow minutes ago, `Where my snack? Hurry up with the crackers.'
You can't even get mad at that 'cause that's what he believes my job is.''
Hummel: ``You're the cracker guy.''
Dennis: ``I'm the cracker guy. You know I get the snacks or I'm the fun guy. Hey Mr. Kobi. That's what they believe is my job, but I'm okay with that. It took a while, I'm 41 now Jim, but believe me in my late 20s early 30s I was like: These ungrateful kids! They don't understand I'm here six days a week. But now, including my family I think they feel the same way too. They think it's my job.
It is no accident that you see Dennis in a suit - even when he's playing flag football. Like every other part of the program, the wardrobe sends a message.
Dennis: ``You can still be the same person. You can be from this neighborhood, you can be a good person, you can care about them, be where they're from and still dress well. They believe... in their minds that people that dress like this are against them. They're the other side, the teacher that doesn't like me. I want them to associate the dressing with positivity.''
Hummel: ``Did you used to think that growing up?''
Hummel: ``There was a big divide.''
Dennis: ``The was a big divide. And that was the authority figure, the guy with the tie and that was standing there like this.''
Dennis has also incorporated students from Providence College and Johnson and Wales University who are volunteering - and observing the program.
Dennis: ``They're coming in because they're aking classes about this. Our program, my program, is in these textbooks. Inner city programs with kids that are at risk. Every kid that I speak to says, it's the same thing: `Oh you do at risk.' Yes I do. They can read through the chapter, but when they come in and see it and feel it and smell it, it's a whole different feeling and I think they embrace it.''
A class from Bryant University last week interviewed some of the kids as part of a management study it is doing this semester on Project Night Vision and how it might be able to develop more resources - and funding.
A cople of years ago Dennis approached Providence Recreation Director Beth Charlebois, about using some of the city's rec centers.
Charlebois: ``I gave him the facility and he was self-sufficient from there, which was pretty amazing that it wasn't depending on us and our resources in order to run.''
Hummel: ``Because a lot of times it's the other way around.''
Charlebois: ``That's what it is, someone will say I want to do something but you have to give me this much money, you have to find all the kids, you have to - so what's the point?''
The good news is - as the economy improves, Night Vision is likely to get some help. Mayor Angel Taveras and Public Safety Commissioner Steve Pare are big supporters.
Charlebois: ``We're in tight times now, but that's cyclical. We're not always going to be in such tight times. I foresee us offering resources, more resources, and trying to help expand the programs.''
But that's down the line. Dennis has to live in the here are now, trying to keep kids out of trouble and on a path - he hopes - to success.
Hummel: ``Where would these kids be if they weren't here on these various nights. Do you think about that?''
Dennis: ``I think about that often - and that's why I'm pretty heavy on the police. The chief of police can tell you he gets emails from me all of the time.
I don't talk too much about it publicly - he gets emails from me all the time letting him know, you understand that this week I had over 500 kids at Madeline Rogers - you understand that - and he will say `Thank you very much Kobi, I appreciate it' because he knows and I know, coming from South Providence, where those kids would be, they'd be hanging right on these street corners, just like they used to before Night Vision.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.